Casinos both online and in the real world are filled with an impossibly vast selection of games, many of them with rule-sets as deep as a player could ever want. In this menagerie, though, one game has risen to triumph over all. It’s called blackjack, and it attracts beginners, veterans, and specialists in equal proportion. The object of the game is simple; if you can get closer than the dealer to 21, you win the bet. But underneath this facade of simplicity lies a depth that could only be developed through years of refinement.
Unlike, say, Pac-Man, the history of casino games like blackjack cannot be easily traced back. They have ancient roots, spanning back thousands of years through hundreds of permutations. Still, we can get an idea of blackjack’s ancestry by tracing the written word.
Though some gambling aficionados claim blackjack’s history dates back to ancient Rome, there is only sporadic evidence linking today’s game with those played under the world’s most expansive empire. Romans had an unquestionable thirst for gambling; the spectacle of chariot racing has endured to this day and was a prime draw for Romans who wanted to back their favorite rider with coin. But while the subjects of Caesar played counting games with wooden blocks, it’s not yet possible to link these pastimes with the modern game of blackjack with any degree of certainty.
Other suspected ancestors include the French game of Quinze, the Italian game of Sette e Mezzo, and the Spanish game of Trente-un, all of which used a number system to inform the rules of play.
The first mention of a game with strong ties to modern blackjack is in Miguel de Cervantes’ Novelas Ejemplares. Writing about a couple of card cheats in the early 1600s, Cervantes outlined the rules of a game called ventiuna, which is Spanish for “twenty-one.” Those rules weren’t identical to modern blackjack, but they unquestionably formed the foundation. This doesn’t confirm that Spain was the birthplace of blackjack, but it’s certainly the earliest indisputable record.
Roughly a hundred years later, we see the popularity of the game take root in France under the name Vingt-et-Un. Due to French colonists bringing the game with them on their expeditions across the sea, the game became popular in North America around this time as well. The rules were still far afield of what you’ll find in a modern casino, but there were enough similarities that a 21st century gambler would not be completely lost.
The Age-Old Balance of Luck and Skill
What made these games stand out from thousands of others? The jury’s still out, but one popular theory is that they took a lot of the “luck” factor out of gambling. “21” took at least some measure of skill and strategy, interweaving fortune and ability in a way that was too fresh to ignore. It is this delicate balance that makes modern blackjack so enduring.
The Game We Know Today
Modern blackjack evolved out of 21 in the early days of Las Vegas. The name change came from a rule tweak that made the Jack of Spades and the Jack of Clubs worth an extra payout. That rule was later discontinued, but the name stuck. Other rule changes gave players the chance to see the dealer’s upcard and forced the dealer to follow a mandatory play-pattern.
Today, blackjack carries its legacy into a new age and a new venue, the online casino. It remains the choice of gamblers worldwide, and its place in gaming history is firmly secured. Will blackjack have another 500 years of popularity? No one can say, but don’t bet against it.